Allowing the Good: Dissolving Stress in Three Steps

allowing-good-dissolving-stress-0604134Have you ever had “one of those days?” For me, it began with spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve as the car bounced on an uneven street, forgetting my iPhone at home (which is like forgetting my right arm), and running late. And, though this wasn’t an awful day, I already felt exhausted and stressed, and it wasn’t even 9 a.m.! Most of us know that when we get started on this path, it’s very easy to let it control us.

The typical way I would have thought about this day, before all my training in Interpersonal Neurobiology and Positive Psychology, was to think, “Well, it’s just going to be one of those bad days,” and to let — no, expect — every bad thing to happen.

The fact is that we are hardwired to focus on the negative in our lives. If you think about this from an evolutionary standpoint, focusing on what did go wrong sets us up to act on what could go wrong to prevent annihilation in the Stone Age, or just plain disappointment today.

And yet, if this is where our attention is, we miss out on all the good stuff that is also happening at the same time. Author and psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson calls this process “Taking in the Good.” It involves three steps:

The first is to look for good experiences.
Okay. What had I already missed that was good because I was focused on being late? The baristas at my favorite café had smiled at me and greeted me with enthusiasm. That felt really good. Who doesn’t love feeling known and having a sense of belonging in the place you frequent every day? While I still felt frustrated about being late, I felt my body begin to soften, just from imagining the connection I felt with the staff at the café.

The second step is to savor the experience. Since I was no longer in the café, I let my mind wander back to how it felt to come in, be greeted warmly, and savor my half-caff Americano made just for me.

The last step is to let it sit. Let the positive experience become you. Hanson cites developmental neuroscientist Dr. Marc Lewis’s research findings that the longer we savor an experience, the more neurons fire and wire together, and the easier it is for us to experience joy.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t feel frustrated or angry, anxious, or disappointed. It just means that you shouldn’t dwell there. Feel it. Let it pass. Don’t let the experience define you or your day. As I moved past the feelings of frustration and anxiety about being late, a different experience came over me: one of calm and receptive gratitude. From this place, I was able to go out into my day with a greater sense of peace and compassion. And I had a good day!

Taking in the Good takes practice. It’s not a one-stop shop. And, with time, it gets easier to refocus your attention.

So, to review those steps of Taking in the Good, they are:

  1. Look for good facts.
  2. Savor the experience. Really enjoy it.
  3. Let the experience sink in. And, revisit the feelings of this experience often. This will encourage neural pathways to grow that enhance your capacity for joy, one of the great buffers against stress.

For more information on Taking in the Good, check out Dr. Rick Hanson’s book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. He also has a smartphone app and a blog: rickhanson.net/blog.

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  • Bev

    Bev

    June 4th, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    for me the key has to be finding a way to look for the good things
    and not the bad
    i wasted too much time always looking out for the nest bad thing that would happen to me
    i looked for the bad and never quite understood that that was the sole reason why i was missing all of the good
    i always wondered why those good things were passing me by
    until i realized that i was letting them because i did not take the time to fully see them

  • amy

    amy

    June 5th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    I am always so rushed that it is rare that I find that I take the time to savor the moment. I appreciate it for the time that it is there, and then I always feel like I have to move on to something else. Why? Where did the mentality go in all of us that would allow us to not feel like a loser for taking a little time out just to enjoy the good things?

  • edmund

    edmund

    June 5th, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    oh,im the worst at this…its always the negative things i think about and the worst part is that these thoughts refuse to go away…i could have one small sour feeling and it will stay with me for an entire day thus ruining everything good.seems like my mind is a magnet for negative feelings.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    June 5th, 2013 at 2:41 PM

    Bev, that’s wonderful that you’ve realized that looking at feeling the good in your life makes things better! It’s never too late to make a difference in your life.
    Amy, it’s so common for all of us to feel rushed (our digital age has a downside!), coupled with the societal pressure to be productive, often prevents our taking the time to go slow, feel deep, and savor the little things. Edmund, it’s so easy to get magnetized to the negative. In fact, our minds are programmed that way. But, with practice, it is possible to reroute our minds like a lost GPS! Thanks for all your thoughts!

  • Lori

    Lori

    June 5th, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    So it’s like retraining your brain? I’ve heard that you can make new neural connections by simply changing your focus. Does it work with OCD? Can you stop “looping”? What about lack of serotonin? I’d appreciate more information. Thank you!

  • Lori

    Lori

    June 5th, 2013 at 3:35 PM

    So it’s like retraining the brain? I’ve heard that you can build new neural connections by refocusing. What about having OCD and lack of serotonin? Can it help stop looping? I’ve had OCD 25+ years.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    June 5th, 2013 at 10:07 PM

    Yes, that’s true, Lori; it is like retraining your brain! You know, I’m not an expert on OCD, so I really can’t speak to whether this process would stop your brain from looping/getting locked in (that would be something to ask your therapist), but it’s a great question! And, should you want to share the answer, I’d love to hear more! Thanks for your thoughts.

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